Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mexico: Las Preguntas y Las Respuestas

I haven't posted for awhile, but not because I abandoned this blog or my interest in community supported agriculture. My summer share starts in June, and I can't wait to start cooking up more fresh, local produce.

My hiatus came in part because Ryan and I took a wonderfully long and interesting vacation. In April we spent two weeks in Mexico, including 10 days in Chiapas and the rest in Mexico City. Chiapas borders Guatemala and is home to many ancient Mayan ruins and villages where indigenous cultures and languages still thrive today.

"You're going where?" was the first reaction of many friends and family when I shared our plans. "Is it safe?"

The short answer is yes. Many people may associate Chiapas with the Zapatista revolution that began in 1994, the largely non-violent movement for indigenous rights that continues to this day. There have been army crackdowns, but certain areas in Chiapas openly declare themselves autonomous of the Mexican government and under Zapatista rule via billboards along the roads. As tourists we felt no danger. While we drove past a few military bases and through a half dozen checkpoints manned by armed police, no one ever stopped or searched our car. To be honest I was way more nervous about driving than I was about encountering political violence!

Since I've gotten a lot of the same questions about the trip, I decided to post some of the most commonly asked Qs.

Q: Where did you go?
A: We flew into Mexico City and Tuxtla Gutierrez, and spent our first night in the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas. From there, we rented a car for six days with overnight stops in Ocosingo (pictured), Palenque, and Lacanja Chansayab for 2 nights before circling back for another night in Palenque and four more in San Cristobal. We spent our last four days in Mexico City.

Q: You drove? Are you crazy?
A: Yes and yes. It was terrifying at first. The roads are curvy and steep. They have two lanes, no shoulders, and loads of tour buses, combis, and smelly trucks. You didn't want to get stuck behind these trucks, but the only way around them was to pass in the oncoming lane. We soon got used to certain "rules" of the road. For example, if the car in front of you wanted to let you pass, the driver turned on the left turn signal, leaving you a few precious moments to zoom by before the next blind curve. Sometimes a car would pass a line of traffic so brazenly that my stomach would drop in anticipation of a spectacular crash with a car speeding from the other direction. This never actually happened, but we saw a few accidents after the fact.

Many villages also had several unmarked topes, or speed bumps, to slow down vehicles as they drove through the towns. Even though we almost bottomed out the car a few times, the topes seemed like a good idea to me. Men, women, children, dogs, chickens, roosters, cows, and goats all share the road, so the topes made it safer for them (one of my favorite scenes was driving past a dozen goats wearing face masks and marching single file down a road). Sometimes a group of villagers, usually children, would raise a rope across the road when they saw us coming. As we slowed down, the children would run to the car with bunches of bananas, boiled chestnuts, or other local treats, demanding a few pesos for them. The children were quite aggressive, and occasionally effective, with their sales tactics. They wouldn't take no for an answer.

Driving also gave us more flexibility and afforded us some interesting glimpses into village life. We saw women in embroidered blouses haul babies, lumber, food, and other goods in patterned slings; men wearing ranchero hats and clutching machetes disappear into dense forest; and uniformed school children playing with friends. There was never a dull view of the lush, green mountains, which often drifted in and out of cloud forests. Ryan might disagree but one of my favorite driving moments occurred when we tried to pop in a cd of Mexican guitar music from Palenque but found a disc already in there - of Madonna's greatest hits! (In fact, I know Ryan would disagree.)

Q: What did you see?
A: Trying to keep this short here, so I'll stick to a few highlights.

We visited several Mayan ruins in Chiapas, including Tonina, Bonampak, and Palenque, but I was most taken with the remote ruins of Yaxchilan (pictured). We had to hire a boat to take us up the Usumacinta River, which has crocodiles on one side and Guatemala on the other. We arrived to a rickety dock and hard-to-climb staircase that led up to the ticket office. The entrance was down a path and through a tunnel built hundreds of years ago in one of the ancient buildings. When we emerged from the otherside, we found a sprawling field with some of the tallest trees I have ever seen. To get to some of the temples, we hiked on paths through the jungle to the sounds of howler monkeys and singing birds. Definitely a lot of atmosphere! In Mexico City, we also visited the Aztec ruins of Tenochtitlan, which were only discovered in the middle of the city about 30 years ago. We also went to Teotihuacan, about an 1.5 hour busride outside of the city. No one really knows who lived there but they sure built some tall temples.

Chiapas has numerous indigenous villages where different languages are spoken, including Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Chol, to name a few. Clothing is one of the features that distinguishes the different villages, as each place has its own distinct embroidery and clothing style. Lacanja Chansayab, for example, is home to some of the last 600 or so Lancandon Indians who wear long, loose tunics that look like nightgowns (pictured). This was a fascinating area to visit, as the Lacandon were virtually isolated from civilization until the middle of the last century. In recent decades the government has deforested about 80 percent of their land for cattle ranching and built paved roads that made their villages more accessible to the outside world. The campomento where we stayed was part of a growing eco-tourism movement in Chiapas. Adjoining the property was a nature walk with signage that pointed out the indigenous flora and fauna as well as a milpa, which was the traditional place where corn, beans, and squash were cultivated.

Animals are plentiful in Chiapas, and many can be found on or near the roads. On the way to Ocosingo, we stopped to find a bathroom. Ryan wandered off and returned about 20 minutes later to bring me back to the store he had found, through the owner's house (a big room with several family members gathered around), up a muddy path, past some chickens, to a cage. Inside the cage was a tejon, which is like a cross between an anteater and a raccoon, trying to claw his way out. When we went back through the house, they showed us shoebox with a few little baby tejons that were smaller than the palm of my hand! We also came across this rooster at Tonina. Can you guess who is imitating the rooster?

Q: Where did you stay?
A: We mostly stayed in budget friendly hotels, cabanas, and for one night only, a hilariously small tree house. In San Cristobal, we couldn't get enough of the Posada Morales, a lovely hotel set in a hillside full of exotic plants and flowers with bungalow-like rooms that overlooked the city.

Another beautiful spot was our cabana at the Campomento Rio Lacanja in Lacanja Chansayab. We'd lounge on the hammock on the porch that opened up to the pristine Rio Lacanja.

Q: What did you eat?
A: Lots of Mexican food - at restaurants, in hotels, at roadside establishments, from street vendors, on boats.... We ate quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, or tostadas with meat, shredded lettuce, and tomato, and all came with beans and tortillas (pictured is a woman from Zinacanton making tortillas with a traditional wood press). One of my favorite dishes was Sopa Azteca, a spicy soup that includes avocado, cheese, and fried tortilla strips. I also became addicted to eating huevos a la mexicana (eggs with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno peppers) for breakfast because the meal gave me the hours of energy I needed to walk up all those stairs at the ruins.

Our visits to the ruins included some interesting food-related experiences. While walking to Palenque, a young man asked us if we wanted champignones (mushrooms). We declined but noticed a few individuals who probably took him up on his offer. We practically ate a full meal at Tonina, where our guide pointed out several edible plants, such as chile peppers and coffee, growing amidst the ancient stone structures.

Speaking of coffee, we had high hopes for some good brew because Chiapas has numerous fincas (coffee plantations) and a growing Fair Trade movement. On our very first morning we stumbled down to the hotel restaurant and ordered cafe con leche, but what arrived was watery Nescafe. Except for a few specialty cafes in San Cristobal, it was Nescafe or nothing. We suspected that they don't drink their own coffee because it costs more to buy Fair Trade, but we don't know for sure. I never got used to it but our New Zealand friend Kiri dealt with the bad coffee by pretending it was herbal tea.

We met Kiri and and her husband, Guy, through the Lonely Planet message boards while trying to find a Passover seder in San Cristobal. They responded and we each arranged to bring certain items for the seder plate. We procured a shankbone in Palenque from a baffled but cooperative owner of a carniceria, and some speckled eggs and greens from a market in Ocosingo. Kiri and Guy made charoset and brought wasabi instead of maror and tortillas for matzo. It was an interesting and long night. Our seder lasted five hours, not because we got so caught up in the Hagaddah but our restaurant was out of some of the food we ordered, so they went to the store, fired up the stove, and finally brought out the food at about 11pm.

Q: Did you get sick?
A: Moctezuma was the Aztec ruler who welcomed the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes into the city of Tenochtitlan out of fear that he was an important god. This ultimately led to the ruler's demise, the downfall of the powerful Aztec empire, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest throughout the country.

So it's not surprising that Moctezuma's Revenge is the name given to that horribly unpleasant condition that sometimes afflicts travelers in Mexico.

The guidebooks all warn not to drink tap water, ice, produce, fruit, or street food. Except for tap water, I have to admit that we drank and ate everything from the start, and I felt perfectly fine throughout the trip. But on our last day we went to Xochimilco, the only remaining canals left from when Mexico City was a swampy lake hundreds of years ago. Here you can rent a boat and buy food, drinks, and a few songs from a mariachi band on the water. I suspect the squash blossom quesadilla led to my own downfall on our last night.

Q: Did you get engaged?
A: No, but on a visit to Zinacanton, a village outside of San Cristobal, we tried on the traditional wedding outfits, and one thing led to another and....

Just kidding!


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